He died among strangers; the sad tale of a 1915 suicide

Gravestones are typically vague beyond name and date of birth and death, but if they include and an editorial flourish, most are laudatory. This can come in the form of a familial platitude: Loving husband and father; a religious bent: Asleep in Jesus; or an indication of virtue: Generous of Heart, Constant of Faith.

A few, however, reflect mystery, sadness or even both.

In Newberry, S.C.’s Rosemont Cemetery is an aging tombstone for one G.W. Dunn. It reads:

“Died in Union Station June 21, 1915 / He Died A Stranger Among Strangers”

The search of old newspapers turned up some background on G.W. Dunn, and it is indeed a forlorn story.

Under the headline “Man Suicides in Newberry,” The Newberry Herald and News reported on June 25, 1915, that Dunn killed himself in the city’s train station by drinking carbolic acid. He was subsequently buried in the city, even though he hailed from several hours away.

“(Dunn) had written a note, which he put on his hat, and then stretched himself on the floor with his head on a bench. It was so clear a case of suicide Coroner Lindsay held no inquest,” according to the paper. “Several passengers saw the man lying in the waiting room, but thought nothing of it, until a drummer (salesman) examined the body, having noticed something wrong.”

Being a different era, the contents of the note were released to the press, and detailed in the Herald and News:

Gravestone of G.W. Dunn, buried in Rosemont Cemetery, Newberry, S.C.

“To the City Authorities of Newberry: I am going to kill myself – and there will not be any use in notifying my people, as I would rather they not know anything about this. I want the city to bury me, and after that you can write to A.B. Dunn, Round, S.C. My name is G.W. Dunn.”

Round, S.C., today known as Round O, is located in Colleton County, not too far from Charleston. It was several hours travel from Newberry in 1915, even by train.

The man’s family was contacted, but, according to the story, “the police chief at Walterboro phoned that the man’s people were not able to look after him. They requested that he be buried here.”

He was interred in Rosemont Cemetery the day following his death, with a local minister conducting the service.

That Dunn was down on his luck is apparent. The paper noted that he was about 35 years old, had one leg and went about on crutches.

It didn’t appear Dunn had come to Newberry to end his life. He arrived in town earlier on the day of his death, from Columbia, about 30 miles south, and spent the day looking for work. He had eaten lunch at a downtown restaurant and left a bundle of clothes, saying he would probably return for supper.

“It appears that the unfortunate man had tried to get work here,” according to the paper. “Mr. W.H. Hardeman of the Newbery Cotton Mill says he applied to him for a job, but there was nothing or him to do there, as machinery has supplanted the hand labor the man had been used to. He tried elsewhere for work, but failed.

“In his despondency, lonely and friendless, the crippled stranger within our gates, with poverty and no work staring him in the face, perhaps without a home fit to be called a home, drank poison and died. He was given a decent burial,” the story concluded.

Dunn had 40 cents in pocket when he was found.

More than a century later, one cannot read of Dunn’s death without feeling a twinge of sadness. To end one’s days in a distant town, with one’s family unable or unwilling to foot the expense to have your body returned home inspires melancholy.

G.W. Dunn rests today on knoll in one of the lonelier parts of the cemetery, the heartrending words on his tombstone faded by time. One can only hope that this “stranger” found some measure of peace in the hereafter.

Banana peel peril largely extinct; allusion remains in comedy

Most comedy must at least be partially based in reality to work. An audience unable to relate to a subject is usually an audience that isn’t going to laugh because they can’t make a connection to the joke or story being told.

For that reason, most people under the age of, say, 85, have had a hard time relating to the idea of slipping on a banana peel. Yet, it has remained a comedy staple practically since the invention of motion pictures.

This seems as counterintuitive as the French love of Jerry Lewis.

Apparently, though, slipping on banana peels was once a very real concern; hence, their role in comedy.

Consider this 1918 story, under the headline “Banana Peel Gets Verdict,” taken from the Greenwood Index, a South Carolina newspaper:

We note that some days since a suit was brought against the city of Columbia (S.C.) by a party who had received a severe injury as the result of a fall on account of having stepped upon a banana peeling that was thrown on the sidewalk.

This verdict should be a warning to every town to enforce more rigidly the ordinance against throwing these peelings on the sidewalks. We suppose that there is not a town that has not such an ordinance, and yet there is a great deal of unconcern about enforcing it. It is a common thing to see these peelings on the sidewalks of Greenwood, and numbers of persons have had accidents on account of it.

There used to be an ordinance against spitting on the sidewalk, but we seem to have thrown it down, too. It might not be a bad idea to let it be known that more attention will be given to it, and the one prohibiting banana peeling on the sidewalks.

Believe it or not, the banana peel was considered a genuine public hazard at one time, writer Laura Turner Garrison wrote in Mental Floss explained when examining how the banana peel gag became so popular in comedy.

“In the mid-19th century, a man named Carl B. Frank began importing Panamanian bananas to New York City,” according to Garrison. “The fruit quickly became a popular street food throughout America, but the surge in urban migration and lack of sanitation regulation posed a major problem in cities. People often tossed their garbage into the streets, leading to a general foul stench and public waste buildup. A fresh banana peel might seem non-threatening, but a rotting banana peel was a slime-covered booby trap.”

Around 1880, Harper’s Weekly rebuked those who tossed their banana peels on a public walkway, as this would likely result in broken limbs, and some Sunday Schools warned children that an improperly discarded peel would not only definitively lead to a broken limb, but that the individual unfortunate enough to suffer the broken would inevitably end up in the poorhouse due to this injury, Garrison added.

The banana peel gag has been a fixture in comedy since the beginning of the 20th century, with the routine widely accepted to have originated on the Vaudeville stage.

“The gag first appeared on the silver screen in the Harold Lloyd silent film The Flirt,” Garrison wrote. “While sitting in a restaurant, Lloyd’s character diligently peels a banana then tosses the skin on the floor. A snooty waiter walks by with a full tray, slips and falls. Chaos ensues.”

Buster Keaton employed the gag in his 1921 film The High Sign, and Laurel and Hardy used it in The Battle of the Century (1927).

It’s continued to be a regular feature in both comedies and cartoons over the decades through to the present, even though most viewers today likely can’t recall ever seeing a rotting banana peel on a sidewalk.

Perhaps the reason the banana peel gag remains viable is that while few of us have experienced slipping on a rotten peel, we have all slipped and fallen. And, like most things, when it happens to someone else it’s pretty funny.

(Top: New Yorker Cartoon by Liam Francis Walsh.)

Freedom of speech and the right to show off your lack of class

I don’t know what motivates this sort of thinking. Narcissism? Misandry? Boorishness?

It’s unfortunate that even amid a tragedy that claimed 16 lives and injured 15 others, some can’t help but wave their social justice warrior capes.

On the positive side, the above individual would appear to be far outnumbered, as more than $15 million has been raised for those involved in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash and their families.

Yes, we all have the right to voice our opinion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should do so each and every time a thought enters our mind.

As wiser folks have said: “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Today’s ‘Fake News’ has nothing on yesterday’s Yellow Journalism

Over the past couple of years there has been increasing distrust of the media, evidenced most clearly by the tag line “Fake News” that are often appended to stories which are in reality little more than an opposing viewpoint.

Some media consumers, unfortunately, are unable to differentiate between stories which occasionally report erroneous information inadvertently and the idea that journalists are purposely misreporting information to undercut those whose politics they disagree with.

Yes, some journalists, particularly those working at high-paying positions in the nation’s media centers, tend to be insulated in a world which is far different from that of most middle- and lower-class individuals, which results in an echo chamber of sorts.

But for those who believe that today’s media is intentionally lying in what they report, one need consider the media of the past.  Among the best-known examples is the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898. Newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst ginned up false articles about a plot by Spain to sink the ship in Havana Harbor, helping precipitate the Spanish-American War.

Wartime, at least in recent decades, has proven to be a breeding ground for baseless media reports, perhaps in part because censorship has been doled out with a far heavier hand as the world has become more literate.

In World War I, for example, newspapers from both Entente and Central Powers nations created stories out of whole cloth, including fictitious stories about major battles, well-known warships being sunk and key military and political figures being killed.

Consider this excerpt from Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, describing French newspapers’ preoccupation with reporting on the welfare of Wilhelm, the German crown prince, son of Kaiser Wilhelm and commander of the German 5th Army during the early months of the war:

“On 5 August he was the victim of an assassination attempt in Berlin; on the 15th seriously wounded on the French front and removed to hospital; on the 24th subject to another assassination attempt; on 4 September he committed suicide, though he was resurrected on 18 October to be wounded again; on the 20th his wife was watching over his death bed; but on 3 November he was certified insane.”

Of course, as Hastings points out, no one of these stories contained the smallest element of truth. Was it malicious, reporting on rumors, wishful thinking, or simply journalists looking to fill space? One hundred-plus years later it’s hard to say.

Despite French media reports to the contrary, Wilhelm survived not only World War I, but also World War, living until 1941.

Today, unfortunately, there are those who believe what they want to believe when it comes to the media.

For the rest of us, a healthy dose of skepticism and an understanding that no journalist wants to go hat in hand to his or her editor and tell them their outlet needs to run a correction should be of assistance in keeping one’s composure when the news rubs one the wrong way.

(Top: Wilhelm, crown prince of Germany, with cane, having survived numerous “near-death” experiences in just the first few months of World War I.)

Ex-slave was among final Revolutionary War participants

Determining the last survivor of pre-20th century conflicts has long been an iffy proposition.

Birth registration in some US states, for example, did not begin until the 1920s, and a number of individuals who claimed to be the last surviving Confederate soldiers in their respective Southern states were nearly all later shown by census records to almost certainly have been born too late to have actually served in the 1861-65 conflict.

Even more problematic is determining the last veterans of the Revolutionary War. The US didn’t begin its national census until 1790 and it was a far leaner affair than that of today, with questioners seeking little more than the name of the head of household, their address and the number of other residents broken down by a handful of categories (free white males over 16, free white females, slaves, etc.). Not exactly a wealth of knowledge.

If one wanted to try to game the system to secure a veteran’s pension, there were no Social Security numbers, birth certificates or computerized records to overcome. One suspects a good story and a couple of willing accomplices willing to verify said story was all that was needed.

That said, the last generally accepted veteran of the American Revolution is Daniel Bakeman, who claimed to have served for a New York militia unit. Born in 1759, Bakeman died in 1869, at age 109.

Bakeman had no tangible proof of his service, stating that he had lost it in a fire earlier in his life. Of course, fires were a regular occurrence in pre-20th century America, so it’s quite possible that Bakeman was so victimized.

It appears that the last 10 or so men accepted as final surviving American veterans of the American Revolution came from northern states and/or died in northern states.

This is not surprising giving that when the final Revolutionary War vets were enjoying their last hurrah, the US Civil War was either taking place or the South was under Reconstruction, making it unlikely that historians or US government officials would be searching for Revolutionary War veterans in the South, or that Southern veterans would be applying for pensions.

Because a considerable part of the war was fought in the South, particularly in the latter years of the Revolution, and the war in the South often was a more informal affair, with an emphasis on guerilla fighting, meaning there was proportionately higher participation among the population, albeit not always on the American side, it’s almost certain that some War of Independence veterans in the south were overlooked.

One of these last survivors was Bob Wheeler, a former slave who died on Sept. 16, 1866, at age 107.

According to an Oct. 9, 1866, story in the Columbia Phoenix, “During the Revolution, Bob was a boy between sixteen and eighteen years of age, and as his memory and mind remained unimpaired, he delighted to tell of his recollections of the old Revolution when the red coats were the terror of every neighborhood. He was for some time a waiting boy for Gen. Wade Hampton.”

That would be Wade Hampton I (1752-1835), grandfather of Wade Hampton III, the Confederate cavalry commander and later SC governor and US senator.

Hampton served in the American Revolution as a lieutenant colonel in an SC cavalry regiment, and he later led US troops in the War of 1812.

Wheeler considered the first Wade Hampton “the next greatest man to Geo. Washington, and during his whole life had a great veneration and respect for the Hampton family,” the Phoenix reported. “When he heard of the promotion and success of our worthy and beloved (Confederate) Gen. Wade Hampton, the old man’s eyes would kindle, and he would stand almost on tiptoe, rejoicing at his achievements, saying that ‘the true old blood would show itself.’”

When the first Wade Hampton died, he was “left by his master’s will to help to support his three daughters,” the paper stated. “This duty he discharged faithfully and honestly.”

Wheeler died near Pomaria, SC, in today’s Newberry County. His burial site is unknown.

(Top: Hampton-Preston Mansion, Columbia, SC, owned by Wade Hampton I from 1823 until his death in 1835. In later years it hosted such luminaries as presidents Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, and Senator Daniel Webster.)

Oregonians melt down over prospect of pumping own gas

I get the whole “tapestry of life” concept and the fact that there are plenty of folk out there who I will never understand. That’s fine. There’s plenty of room in this world for everyone and, left to myself, I’m happy to let others be.

But occasionally I get a glimpse of another world that truly confounds me, where individuals are so utterly foreign in their thinking that I cannot begin to wrap mind around what makes them tick, or even how they keep ticking.

Consider the uproar among some in Oregon after a law went into effect Monday that will shortly allow residents in some rural counties to pump their own gas. From the outcry, one would have thought the law required them to pump their own stomachs.

First, I didn’t even realize there were still places in the US where it was illegal to operate self-service gas stations, but it’s still prohibited in New Jersey and, as of Monday, in Oregon counties with more than 40,000 inhabitants.

Second, it should be noted that the new Oregon law doesn’t require anyone to pump their own gas; it simply gives them the opportunity to use self-service, which almost always means lower prices.

But when Medford, Ore., television station KTVL posted the story on social media, it received numerous negative comments from residents who apparently aren’t interested in getting out and pumping their own petrol:

  • “I’ve lived in this state all of my life and I REFUSE to pump my own gas. I had to do it once in California while visiting my brother and almost died doing it. This (is) a service only qualified people should perform. I will literally park at the pump and wait until someone pumps my gas,” said Mike Perrone.
  • “No! Disabled, seniors, people with young children in the car need help. Not to mention getting out of your car with transients around and not feeling safe too. This is a very bad idea. Grrr,” said Cathy Dahl.
  • “Not a good idea, there are lots of reason(s) to have an attendant helping, one is they need a job too. Many people are not capable of knowing how to pump gas and the hazards of not doing it correctly. Besides I don’t want to go to work smelling of gas when I get it on my hands or clothes. I agree. Very bad idea,” said Tina Good.
  • “I don’t even know HOW to pump gas and  I am 62, native Oregonian … I say NO THANKS! I don’t want to smell like gasoline!” said Sandy Franklin.

Granted, these are worst-case reactions, but I’ve never thought of rural Oregon as  a place where common sense was in incredibly short supply. Or where ignorance of a simple task would be worn as a badge of honor.

Perhaps there is high propensity of drug-addled former hippies hiding away in the state’s hinterlands, unable or unwilling to handle something as pedestrian as filling up a gas tank.

Whatever the case, I’d love to see the individual who pulls up to the gas pump and just sits there waiting … waiting … waiting for someone to fill ‘er up. If it were my station, I’d tell him he can either pump his own gas or go pound sand.

Writer: Ron Paul had it coming because he’s a libertarian

Many, at least in the United States, know of the recent attack on Kentucky Senator Rand Paul by a neighbor, an assault that left Rand with six broken ribs.

Attacks on sitting U.S. Congressmen being relatively rare and generally frowned upon, the mugging, by Paul’s neighbor, retired doctor Rene Boucher, has generated considerable coverage. Initially there was speculation that the incident, which occurred while Paul was riding on a lawn mower with noise-canceling headphones, was political in nature.

It now appears that Boucher’s blindside blitz was personal in nature, though it’s not entire clear why the doctor took it upon himself to tackle Paul.

However, more than one pundit has waddled into the fray by stating that Paul’s libertarian stance was not only the casus belli, but a justifiable excuse.

USA Today wrote that Paul was the neighborhood’s problem child because “he has a strong belief in property rights.”

A writer for GQ magazine opined that Paul was “an asshole neighbor” because he “bought a house in a neighborhood that has certain rules with regard to lawns, and he decided that he doesn’t need to follow those rules because of his belief in ‘property rights’ that don’t actually exist.”

This, the writer explained, is the problem with libertarianism: “Libertarians don’t want to follow the rules that we as a society have agreed upon, because they feel those rules step on their freedoms.” Alas, if only John Locke and John Stuart Mill, proponents of libertarian views, had been able to subscribe to GQ they might have seen the error of their ways.

Best of all, though, was Elie Mystal of the website Above the Law, which claims to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the world of law and original commentary on breaking legal developments. Mystal is no novice to the legal world, having earned a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School after receiving a bachelor’s degree in government studies from Harvard, and he later worked as a litigator before entering the media world.

It would be safe to say that Mystal isn’t a fan of libertarianism:

“The thing everybody knows about Rand Paul is that he’s a libertarian and ‘libertarian’ always sounds like a fine legal and political theory to people who haven’t thought deeply about how to live with others,” he wrote. “‘You can do what you want and I can do what I want and, so long as we’re not hurting anybody, the government can do nothing.’ It’s … cute, as theories of social interactions go. It’s not a workable basis for law and governance.”

Libertarianism isn’t a workable basis for law and governance because … Elie Mystal said so.

Mystal goes on to demonstrate that earning a J.D. apparently requires little in the way of logical-thinking skills:

“Rand Paul’s broken ribs prove the weakness of libertarianism. According to reports, Rand Paul likes to grow pumpkins on his property. You might like pumpkins, but to some people, pumpkins are kind of big and ugly and, stinky. A slightly past harvest pumpkin patch smells the worst.”

“Reports also indicate that Paul makes his own compost (also stinky) and ‘has little interest for neighborhood regulations.’ This, my friends, is what libertarianism looks like in practice. I’ll grow what I want, put trash where I want, and maintain my space however I want, and you can’t do anything about it. FREEDOM!

Yes, that’s right, libertarians embrace a political philosophy with liberty at its core so that they can flout homeowners’ association regulations regarding pumpkin growing and composting. Stickin’ it to the Man every which way they can!

(Not to break Mystal’s path of incoherency, but it should be noted that Paul and Boucher, while neighbors, live more than an acre from one another, so we’re not talking about two individuals who shared a duplex for the past 17 years.)

Then the great unhinging begins to kick into high gear. From reckless pumpkin growing and composting, it’s a small leap to cowardice and misuse of power, in Mystal’s view:

Libertarians only want the heavy hand of ‘government’ involved when things get tough. When things get physical, libertarians will run to your nearest law enforcement officer and demand that something be done.

But libertarians also think they can stand on the very edge of their property and bother you however they deem fit, and then expect you to be restrained in your reaction by the government and … that’s just not how society works. You can only needle a man so long before he tries to break your face, legal technicalities be damned. Libertarianism is the social and political philosophy of instigating conflict without suffering the consequences of their own conduct. It works well enough on paper, but in real life it’s going to inspire otherwise decent people to tackle you off your lawnmower and try to break all of your ribs.

Yes, I’m victim-blaming. Yes, I’m saying Rand Paul was “asking for it,” over these past 17 years.

After all that, though, Mystal never indicates if he even knows Paul personally. His rantings seem based solely on a dislike of libertarianism and Paul, without any apparent genuine understanding of the senator, the issues in this incident or of libertarianism in general.

My guess is that his dislike of the latter philosophy probably stems from an incident long ago, perhaps during his time in the Harvard dorms, when perhaps a fellow student, likely with an interest in libertarianism, dared to commit some egregious act such as leaving pizza boxes in the dorm hallway and then reacted poorly to Mystal’s despotic attempts to rule the roost (read: calling in everyone from the resident assistant to the dean of diversity affairs).

Mystal’s logic: One slob with an interest in libertarianism years proved displeasing; therefore, in Mystal’s eyes, all libertarians are jackleg reprobates.

If the logic displayed in Mystal’s commentary is in any way reflective of the general mindset of 21st century U.S. jurisprudence, we might as well return to trial by ordeal. The results are pretty much the same, but the latter is a whole lot less sanctimonious.